The Next Yellowstone: How Big Money Is Building A New Kind Of National Park

Oct 28, 2019
Originally published on October 15, 2019 8:16 am

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

The Promise And Peril Of Environmental Philanthropy | A Privately-Funded Park For The People | Save The Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve | A Hunter’s Paradise | The Buffalo Is A Symbol of God

The northern Great Plains aren’t much to look at. It’s the drab, boring part of a cross-country interstate drive between Seattle and Chicago. 

No trees in sight. No water. But Sean Gerrity, founder of American Prairie Reserve, has always seen something more out here. 

On a recent summer afternoon, he climbs a steep, grassy hill in the plains of northeastern Montana to show me. 

Once we reach its top, the flat, yellow prairie opens up into a stunning panorama of deep, white canyons cut through by a wide, silty river. 

“What you’re seeing here is the incredible beauty of the Missouri River out in front of us,” he says. “Those beautiful cliffs and the raking light coming across in the afternoon.”

This is the country Gerrity wants to protect. A wild, rugged place full of steep coulees and unbroken plains. It’s called American Prairie Reserve and it’s a new kind of national park — one that’s free to the public and privately funded by small donors and some of the world’s wealthiest people. 

Its goal is to rewild this swath of the Great Plains and return all the animals that lived on this landscape more than a century ago, before white settlers arrived. Wolves, grizzly bears, thousands of genetically-pure, wild bison.

Gerrity points down to the valley below. “Over here would be some elk,” he says. “Over here would be bison. On the river banks would be a mama grizzly bear with two or three little cubs walking along the mud there.”

Making Gerrity’s vision a reality requires piecing together an existing national monument and wildlife refuge with private properties and their accompanying grazing leases to create a giant, rewilded grassland. 

When it’s complete, it will be the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Lower 48 — about 5,000 square miles, nearly the size of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

On the ground, the reserve finds support among nearby tribes and with those who see economic potential in tourism. But the pushback is louder. It comes from a close-knit community of ranching families who view the reserve as an existential threat, removing them from the land they’ve worked for generations. As one cattlewoman told me, “for them to be successful, we can’t be here. That’s not OK with us.”

Others voice concern over the big-money donors allowing American Prairie to acquire multimillion-dollar ranches. 

But in a state known as the Last Best Place, biologists believe American Prairie Reserve may represent the last best place to pursue a wildly ambitious restoration of the Great Plains — and at a time when many have lost faith in the government to protect wild places. 

As the reserve slowly grows bigger and bigger, a modern Western drama about change, loss and renewal is unfolding on this unforgiving landscape.

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The idea of a massive wildlife preserve on the Great Plains has been around for almost two centuries. Back in the 1830s, the painter George Catlin argued it should be protected as a national park. But it took Gerrity, an ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneur, to finally get this idea off the ground. 

Gerrity looks like he just walked out of an REI catalog. Grey, curly hair, muscled forearms, nice plaid shirt. He’s always had an affinity for wildlife. He grew up hiking and hunting with his parents in central Montana. But after college, he and his wife moved to the West Coast.

They eventually landed in Silicon Valley, where Gerrity consulted for big name companies like Apple and AT&T. He earned a lucrative living and a comfortable house in the hills above Santa Cruz, Calif. But Montana beckoned him back, where he realized he could build something that lasts longer, that’s more meaningful than a Silicon Valley company.

“To work on something — pour your heart into it — and arrange it like a giant work of art and the public would by and large appreciate and realize it would last far, far beyond my lifetime? That just seemed like a dream come true,” Gerrity says.

But right now, the American Prairie is still mostly a dream. For the past 18 years, Gerrity and his team have been building this park, slowly buying ranches, and replacing cattle with wild bison. 

Those private properties come with expansive grazing leases on hundreds of square miles of adjacent, government-owned lands, allowing the reserve to exert more power over how those public spaces are managed. 

The organization has purchased close to 30 properties so far, but it needs at least another 50. And these aren’t easy negotiations. Driving around, you see signs everywhere that say, “Save The Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve.” 

But the project’s efforts have garnered a lot of positive attention from international media outlets and celebrities like Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns. Which is a good thing, Gerrity says, because these ranches are really expensive. We’re talking millions and millions of dollars.“It’s gonna take a lot of money. Where else do you go?”

Certainly not the federal government. It doesn’t have the political will nor budget to build a really big national park like this, Gerrity argues.So instead, he and his non-profit organization have turned to some of the world’s richest people for help. He pitches donors on creating a new kind of national park, “one of the most amazing conservation projects going on anywhere in the world...without tapping government money or raising taxes to do it, and make it open to yourself and your friends and your family to come and enjoy it.”

The sales pitch has worked, over and over. American Prairie won’t release its full list of donors, citing privacy concerns, but it has received millions of dollars from some prominent philanthropists. They include a German billionaire, a handful of New York City-based investment bankers, and heirs to the Mars Candy company.

But as the reserve brings in big money from big donors, some see hypocrisy, including Rob Reich, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University. 

“The structure of global capitalism, which they had a role upholding, is partly responsible for the degradation of the environment,” Reich says.

He points to a couple of the reserve’s major donors. As top executives in the finance industry, they helped steer major investments in oil, gas or coal — industries that contribute heavily to the climate crisis, which has fueled worsening droughts, fire and floods in the northern Great Plains.

“The idea of taking that pile of wealth and then setting oneself up as a philanthropist and engaging in a whole bunch of do-gooding projects and getting the social standing of being a donor is at some odds with the initial act of the money making,” Reich says.

Keith Anderson, American Prairie’s board treasurer, served as the chief investment officer of Soros Fund Management, whose portfolio included at least $244 million worth of stocks in the oil industry during his tenure. 

George Matelich, the board’s chairman, is a senior partner at Kelso & Company, a private equity firm, which has more than 100 companies in its portfolio. They include one that explores for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, another that drilled for natural gas in Pennsylvania, and a handful of others that service extractive industries. 

Matelich and the Mountain West News Bureau were unable to agree on terms for an interview. We were unable to reach Keith Anderson despite repeated attempts. But investment bankers often argue they act as fiduciaries. Essentially, they aren’t investing their own money — they’re investing other people’s money. So they can’t make a moral or political judgement on where that cash goes because it isn’t theirs. 

For his part, Gerrity says everyone is driving the climate crisis.

“The person who puts the gas in their car, or uses the coal in their house to heat, or the person who gets on a non-essential jet trip to take a vacation or go to a wedding or something like that, is the person actually creating the business and encouraging the oil companies to keep on doing what they’re doing,” Gerrity tells me.

Back on the steep, grassy hill above the Missouri River, Gerrity says the reserve can’t afford to be picky about where it gets its cash. 

“Over a million acres of native prairie was plowed in this area that we’re looking at last year. Just last year. This wildlife habitat is going away and there is almost none left,” he says. “This is the last bit in the Great Plains, for the most part, where we can do a project of this size.”

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We’re talking 3.2 million acres — almost the size of Connecticut. It takes hours to drive across the reserve. Signs warn visitors to bring enough food and water for days. 

When it rains here, the dirt roads turn into what locals call “gumbo.” It’s like driving on bacon grease. Even the UPS vans, equipped with four-wheel-drive, look like monster trucks. 

It’s wild, desolate country — a landscape that people like Danny Kinka have fallen in love with. Kinka is American Prairie’s chief wildlife ecologist. When I meet him, he’s crashing through tall sagebrush and yellow-green grasses on a ranch near the reserve’s boundary.

“I like this landscape because it feels wild,” he says as we swat giant cicadas and black flies. “It feels far away from the hustle and bustle of civilization. It’s relaxing.”

It’s also about as different as you can get from the suburbs of central Florida, where Kinka grew up. He’s in his mid-30s with gray-flecked hair, a bushy beard, and he wears an earring. Kinka was the son of a country club manager in Florida, but he was always pulled towards wild places like this. First, it was just public parks near his house. 

“And then it was national parks, and then it was national monuments, and then it was as far away as I could get down a dirt road just to see what was down there,” he says. “This is pretty far down a dirt road where we are right now.”

It’s a beautiful scene. Cottonwood trees shudder in the wind. Tall grasses swell and roll like waves in an ocean. But the prairie can also feel lonely and empty. That makes sense. There isn’t a lot of wildlife out here. Kinka says it wasn’t always like this.

“Lewis and Clark describe a scene of hardly being able to look in any direction without seeing vast, uncountable herds of wildlife,” he says. “So if the place feels empty, I think there’s a reason for that. There’s something missing. This is a blank canvas upon which there is something to be painted — some of the most interesting and incredible animals that have ever walked the continent.”

The reserve has already reintroduced a few hundred bison using a wrinkle in Montana law. 

“Bison are considered livestock by the state of Montana,” Kinka explains. “Unlike other wildlife species, they can be owned. So we are able to buy bison.”

While you can’t buy wild grizzly bears or wolves, they’re thriving in the Northern Rockies and slowly migrating back to the Great Plains on their own. 

In fact, that’s why we’re on this neighboring ranch right now — to see if any of those critters have crossed through here and onto the reserve. 

Kinka and his wildlife technician, Katy Beattie, climb down an embankment, searching for a wildlife camera they attached to a tree near a creek bed. When they find it, it’d been knocked over by a cow that had evidently peed on it. 

But the camera’s not ruined. They replace the batteries and remove the memory card so they can scan it later. Beattie hasn’t captured any photos of wolves or grizzly bears yet, but she has snapped elk, coyote, deer and — her favorite — mountain lions. 

“It’s such an elusive animal that you don’t see that often,” Beattie says, “so being able to capture so many pictures of it… it’s just really cool to look at.” 

All this work is funded by private money. And while the size and scope of American Prairie Reserve is novel, environmental philanthropy is not.

Billionaires like Ted Turner and Bill Gates have been doing it for years. Grand Teton National Park was created, in part, using land purchased by Standard Oil heir and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.

He quietly bought the land south of Yellowstone from ranchers and then donated it to the federal government. But like what’s happening today with the American Prairie Reserve, many locals at the time were furious. 

Cattlemen threw a fit. 

They staged protests, cursed out Rockefeller and compared the federal government to a bunch of Nazis. Still, Grand Teton was eventually completed, in 1950, and became one of the most popular parks in the country.

But unlike Rockefeller, American Prairie Reserve doesn’t plan on donating its private land to the federal government. It’s going to keep it. 

“Why should we give it back?” Kinka asks.

The government hasn’t shown itself to be the best protector of public lands, he argues, especially under the current administration. Kinka points to President Trump shrinking two national monuments in Utah in late 2017. 

“What we thought of as protected forever doesn’t look so protected forever,” he says.

But Kinka says the government can’t strip away protections on privately-owned land. 

“So, in that light, a private park, so to speak, a private park that’s managed for the enjoyment of the public, seems a lot — a lot more permanent,” he says.

It’s important to note here that American Prairie won’t own all of its 3.2 million acre preserve. 

About 80 percent of that huge acreage is actually owned by the federal government. But what the reserve will do is lease the grazing rights on many of those public lands, essentially combining public and private lands together into one giant, open prairie. 

Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service during the Obama administration, has no problem with American Prairie knitting together public and private lands and maintaining control.

“They don’t have to give it to the government, I don’t think it’s necessary at all,” he says.

But he does worry about what all this means for the reserve in the long run. 

“If it’s just a bunch of private lands and a bunch of people that get together and [say], ‘Yeah, we’re committed to this,’ in 50 years they’re all gonna be dead. And then the next generation says, ‘You know, I want to take that cruise. I want to buy that plane I’ve been thinking about, so I’m going to sell that property.’” 

Kinka, the wildlife ecologist, doesn’t share that concern. When asked if private enterprise can be trusted to protect this land forever and not sell it or lock out the public, he says, “I wouldn’t work here if that wasn’t true. If it gets locked up tomorrow I’m leaving. I’m not working for this place. I don’t want anything to do with it.”

He continues: “Nobody here, none of my colleagues have any interest in creating a big park for super, super rich people. The idea is that 22-year-old Danny can come out here in his two-door Toyota Tercel and get lost in the middle of the prairie reserve and discover wildness for himself with, you know, only a few pennies to pinch together, that’s deeply important to me. That’s why I work here.”

And it seems concerns that the land could be sold off to the highest bidder are moot anyway. According to American Prairie’s bylaws, if the reserve fails and the land is put up for sale, it has to go to a similar-minded conservation organization. 

That means this land will never again be owned by ranchers and that doesn’t sit well with many locals here. They argue the reserve is threatening a culture that’s dominated this landscape for more than 150 years.

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You see a lot of signs around here saying “Save the Cowboy, Stop the American Prairie Reserve.” They’re taped to windows, staked in lawns. 

One is nailed to a shed outside the First Creek Community Hall. It’s a little white building surrounded by grassland and farm fields, just north of some American Prairie-owned lands. 

Inside, on a hot Sunday afternoon, a small group of ranchers are greeting each other and chatting. They’re dressed up for church — snap-button Western shirts, combed hair and blue Wrangler jeans — because this community center serves as a makeshift chapel on Sundays. There’s a wooden cross in the corner held up by a Christmas tree stand. A 4-H flag is posted to the wall. 

Travelling preacher Hal DeBoer presses play on a black boombox and leads his tiny congregation in a country-style hymn.

DeBoer is from Florida but he’s lived and preached in Montana for 44 years. He fell in love with the ranching culture. Today he’s wearing a big, shiny belt buckle and cowboy boots. He can’t quite put into words just how much the prairie means to him. 

“I want to be here, I don’t want to be anywhere else,” DeBoer says. “It’s like I’m a part of the land. And it just burns in me.”

“I’m, I’m sad by it,” says rancher Peggy Bergsagel.

Sure, she can understand why someone might sell. Ranching is hard, margins can be slim, and large spreads can be worth millions. But Bergsagel would never sell out, especially to the reserve.

“Never, ever,” she says. “They can drag me with wild horses across the prairie and I won't. I won’t!”

Many ranchers here share that sentiment. They make a lot of different arguments against the project. Some border on crazy, such as the conspiracy theory that the reserve is part of a cunning plot by the United Nations to clear everyone from the Great Plains. But the most common argument boils down to this: God gave people this land so it can be worked, so we can produce food or fuel from it. 

DeBoer says that’s a biblical idea. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, “and the very first words that he said to the man was, ‘I want you to work this and take care of it.’ So to me, that is what the ranchers and farmers are doing. They’re working the land, but they’re taking care of it.”

This Christian idea of stewarding the land first drove white settlement in the West more than a century ago. DeBoer’s always thought of God as the first farmer. “He planted the Garden,” he says. “So he’s for the farming profession.”

But ranching and farming in this part of the Great Plains is really tough, especially during the long winter, when temperatures drop well below freezing and a constant wind roars across the open prairie. Snow drifts so high that roads sometimes disappear. The sky and the land become separated by a single, thin grey horizon. 

In the summer, temperatures soar into the triple digits. Rains come heavy and hard or they don’t come at all. Massive fires sweep across the prairie. Sometimes they burn so hot they melt steel. 

This was the world white homesteaders first laid eyes upon on in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They discovered a country that was more like a desert than their green European homelands. 

Families became isolated, trying to grow crops in a place that mostly rejected them. During these homesteading days, an affliction of insanity rippled across the Great Plains. It was known as prairie madness, brought on by the terrifying loneliness of settling a hard new land. One magazine writer described insane asylums filled with Scandanavians coming off the Great Plains.

When the homesteading boom finally busted after World War I, the population in eastern Montana plummeted. It’s pretty much been in decline ever since. 

That’s one reason why American Prairie Reserve targeted this spot in the first place. There’s a lot of native grassland here and a lot of land for sale. 

But some ranching families never gave up on their spreads and they aren’t about to sell out now, even though the reserve is paying millions of dollars for each property. That kind of money could buy a nice retirement home by a lake somewhere. But they don’t leave, and I want to know why.

So the next morning, I find myself moving cattle on the C Lazy J Ranch. 

The grasses are green out here from a recent thunderstorm and dozens of big, black cows are lining up near an electric fence. Rancher Connie French is pushing them onto a new pasture.

French doesn’t look like a stereotypical rancher. Instead, she reminds me of someone’s artsy, garden-loving grandmother. She has curly grey hair, a big broad sun hat and the deeply tanned face of a person who spends every day outdoors. 

As she lifts some electric fence, something suddenly makes her stop. 

“Can you hear it? I just heard it over here,” she says.

She inches over to some sagebrush and spots it — a coiled rattlesnake.

“Gives you the creeps, doesn’t it?”

Rattlesnakes, black biting flies, the hordes of mosquitoes that hatch this time of year — the prairie of northeastern Montana can be downright nasty to live in. But French loves the challenge.

“You know, maybe it’s like when people skydive or something,” she says. “It’s a little bit of adrenaline, it’s that self-sufficiency — feeling like I can handle whatever gets thrown at me.”

But she believes the American Prairie Reserve is throwing something profoundly threatening at ranchers like her who live within the bounds of its proposed 3.2-million-acre sanctuary. 

“For them to be successful, we can’t be here,” she says. “And that’s not OK with us.” 

It’s not as if the reserve is wiping out ranching all across the Great Plains. But it is challenging the established order, ranchers’ control over this land, which has put them in the state legislature, on county commissions, and has kept cattle king here in northeastern Montana. 

But as land prices in the West rise and ranchers struggle to find family members to take over their spreads when they die, ranching itself, and the lifestyle it affords, becomes threatened. And the idea of an outsider like American Prairie swooping in is intolerable for many locals. 

The reserve’s notion of rewilding the West and returning wild bison to the plains really bothers Connie’s husband, Craig. He compares those animals to impressionable kids. 

“That, to me, is like telling a teenager to just go do what you please without any boundaries, and that’s definitely not a way to parent,” he says. “Letting animals roam free and do as they please is definitely not a way, in my view, to steward land.”

Craig has lived out here all his life. He’s a big guy with a loose Wrangler shirt and straw hat. He worries that 3.2 million acres isn’t big enough to support the reserve’s goal of 10,000 wild bison.

“When God was doing it he had a lot bigger playground,” he says. “We just have this small little sandbox.”

Scientists from the World Wildlife Fund say otherwise. But both Craig and Connie are rooted in that Christian notion of stewarding the land. They say it’s the best way to take care of what’s left of the prairies.

While some ranchers here overgrazed the land and plowed up native grasses, most did a good job taking care of it. That’s a big reason why this area is still considered one of the last intact grassland ecosystems in the world. Ranchers here are pretty good stewards. Powerful conservation groups have taken notice. They are working with some ranchers here to help them save what’s left of the prairie while at the same time sustainably raise cattle. 

“We are the best hope to keep this land here,” French says. “I really feel like ranchers — these land stewards — are the best option for conservation.”

But the number of agriculture jobs in this region have dropped by more than a third since 1970, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

And even though folks invest their lives in the land, sometimes their kids just don’t want to take it over. So they sell to the highest bidder, whether it’s a neighboring ranch, a wealthy out-of-stater, or the prairie reserve. 

But French says she’ll never sell out to the reserve. Because if she does, she says she’ll lose something deeper than the land. 

“I don’t want to live a soft life,” she says. “I don’t want my grandkids to live a soft life. I don’t want them to have air conditioning at the push of a button. Or heat at the push of a button. Or things delivered to their door. I want them to have to work for some things. I don’t want life to be too easy.” 

Places like the American Prairie Reserve offer another kind of self-sufficiency. It’s wild country where urban dwellers can get lost on epic trail runs or three-day backpacking trips. 

But French says there’s a big difference. 

“So then you’re a tourist,” she says. “You’re a visitor. You’re an observer. So you’re there for a short time and then you go home. When you actually live there, you’re a participant. You are involved in the day-to-day life of not just your animals but the land around you. The wildlife, the grass, the bugs. You are an active participant that’s taking care of that place.”

French worries we’ll lose that deep, on-the-ground knowledge if ranchers leave the prairie. But a handful have sold to the reserve, and some locals support the project.

I met one rancher outside of an Albertsons grocery store in Lewistown, Mont., south of the reserve. She was carrying a pack of White Claw alcoholic seltzer waters. 

She says if it wasn’t American Prairie buying up lands, it would be someone else, someone like the Wilks brothers, who made their fortunes in the fracking business and are notorious in the West for buying up huge parcels of land and closing down public access. At least the reserve isn’t doing that, she says.

But this woman didn’t want to speak on the record. In fact, almost all of the supporters I contacted didn’t. 

But one guy did reach out to me over Twitter. He said he was willing to talk.

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I find myself in Justin Schaaf’s black Toyota Tundra heading down a two-track dirt road. Schaaf, 27, looks like a high school linebacker. His head is shaved and he’s wearing cargo pants. He’s taking me to one of his favorite hunting spots. While he works as a train conductor for the local railroad, his passion is hunting.

“If I’m not hunting I’m thinking about hunting and planning hunts, and when I’m sitting in the motel for work or when I’m sitting at home in the recliner I’m looking at maps, looking at Google Earth,” he says. 

He’s always trying to find the perfect place to hunt. 

As the road peters out, Schaaf pulls over. We grab some water and begin hiking in. It’s not big game hunting season yet, so we’re just scouting. 

“We’re hoping to see some elk. Definitely some bighorn sheep. I have seen some pretty good mule deer in here,” he says.

We climb over sweet clover and sagebrush. This seems like an easy place to get lost but I’m not worried because Schaaf has lived in eastern Montana all his life. His great-great grandparents homesteaded just a few miles south of here near the Musselshell River. They lasted about 40 years before quitting and heading into town. 

“They didn’t have enough land to support the ranching that you need and I don’t think the farming was cutting it at all,” he says.

It was a fate suffered by a lot of homesteaders out here. They couldn’t produce enough food or money to survive. As eastern Montana’s population continues to decline, Schaaf thinks it’s time to try something different.

“Is a little shot of tourism, capitalizing on hunter dollars, bringing more hunters into this area, will that make the difference?” he asks.

He thinks it might. After all, Schaaf is a young guy who stayed in eastern Montana precisely because of this wild country in his backyard. 

“I can make more money in other places but it’s the outdoors, being able to pull my pickup up here and not talk to anyone and go for a hike all day long, that keeps me here,” he says. “Opportunity to just roam, I think, is enticing to young people.”

So-called rural recreation counties are growing faster than counties that don’t have a lot of hiking, hunting and fishing opportunities, according to the non-profit Headwaters Economics.

And here’s an important point: unlike a traditional national park, American Prairie Reserve allows hunting.

We don’t spot any wild bison. They’re mostly confined to privately-owned reserve lands north of us. But we do see a big herd of elk, about 45 cows and calves.

“That’s a crapload of elk,” Schaaf says.

It’s getting hot and the hike is grueling. We stumble up steep ravines and past stands of ponderosa pine. Schaaf says he understands that American Prairie Reserve is funded by rich people, some who made millions helping finance industries that degrade the environment. 

“I do worry where that money comes from,” he says. But dirty money doesn’t just come from the private sector. He points to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that takes royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling and pumps it back into parks and public lands. 

“It’s helped my kid’s playground and it’s provided hunting opportunities for me,” Schaaf says.

It’s just the way the world works, he argues. So long as that money is used to protect and provide public access to wild places like this, it’s good enough for Schaaf. But he also understands why so many locals hate the reserve. 

There’s the fundamental difference between working the land and letting it go wild. But there’s also a strong distrust of powerful outsiders. Schaaf points to the nearby Missouri River as an example. It looks more like a wide lake here because it was dammed during the Great Depression. The federal government forced out ranchers and farmers who lived in the valley bottom before flooding it. Scars may remain.

“People have been down this path before of things changing abruptly,” Schaaf says. “The opinions of those people should be listened to. They shouldn’t be taken lightly or tossed out. They’ve got legitimate beliefs, too. We might disagree but I’ll still listen to them.”

American Prairie moved relatively fast and hard on this landscape. It didn’t compromise. It bought land to get itself a seat at a table. But that’s the key here. It bought land from willing sellers. It isn’t claiming eminent domain. It isn’t flooding a valley.

It isn’t taking their land by force. Or stripping them of their language, their religion and their livelihood. That’s what happened to the people who were here before the ranchers, farmers and hunters. The Aaniiih and Nakoda lost their land and the animal they depended on most: bison. But now the reserve is bringing thousands of those animals back, a rewilding tribes in the region welcome.

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It’s late July. Grasses are tall and green and folks are all gathered near the town of Lodgepole, on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, for a powwow. A thunderstorm is building in the distance and the air is thick with humidity. Kids are running around and generators hum from the backs of trailers.

I grab a greasy hamburger from a food stand and strike up a conversation with its cook, Hannah Has Eagle. She’s Nakoda and says she’d much rather be serving hamburgers made from bison than beef. It’s leaner and healthier, she says. That’s a big reason why she’s excited about the reserve bringing back so many bison. 

“It’s probably a blessing to have all those buffalo,” Has Eagle says. “It’s not probably, it is.”

That’s because for centuries, plains tribes relied on the animals for everything. Buffalo hides, for example, are so thick and warm that heat barely escapes, even in the dead of winter. So they were tanned and transformed into clothes and teepee covers. Bison bladders were used to haul water. Dung could be used as fuel for fires. Hooves were boiled into glue. 

So when the U.S. government and white hunters began mass slaughtering of bison in the 19th century, it was like they were tearing out the tribes’ heart. Kenneth Tuffy Helgeson is Nakoda.  He remembers his grandfather telling him why the bison were so important to his people.

“They knew if they took away our main food source — our main symbol of God — that we would be rendered to literally nothing,” he says.

Helgeson ranches on the reservation.  Today he’s wearing a crisp white shirt, flat-brimmed hat and blue jeans. He says the stories of bison and tribes mirror each other. After the slaughter, wild bison were largely confined to a single national park: Yellowstone. 

“At the same time,” he says, “Indians were put on the reservation in their own corrals. And our populations dwindled.”

Americans and Canadians tried to breed bison and cattle together to create a new kind of meat. Some intrepid ranchers raised domestic buffalo herds on farms. Meanwhile, Helgeson’s family and many others were encouraged to cultivate the land like the white settlers did.

“We were given a plow and a horse and a bit and a bridle and a few head of cows to make a life for ourselves,” he says. “The words they used in those days was to assimilate the Indian. To take away their culture. To give them a new culture.”

The culture of ranching. That culture has held power over the West for more than 150 years. It imbued America with a love affair for the cowboy. It gave us John Wayne, bolo ties and the Marlboro Man. 

Helgeson feels for the local ranching community with American Prairie Reserve purchasing many of their spreads. Cattlemen are losing their neighbors and their way of life. 

But Helgeson also understands why some folks on the reservation don’t have a lot of sympathy for them. 

“A person may think you’re going to get your comeuppance and we’re going to settle up and you’re going to feel what we felt,” Helgeson says.

Not everyone feels that way. There are a lot of different opinions about American Prairie Reserve on the reservation. But the fact is, the tribes are gaining a crucial piece of their culture back. American Prairie’s wild herd of bison will eventually be the largest wild herd in North America.

Not that the tribes are getting their traditional lands back. This patchwork of public and private lands adjacent to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation will be managed to more closely resemble what those lands used to be, and all they provided the tribes. But they will still be owned, in essence, by white settlers and the government. This doesn’t bother Helgeson. 

“You know, I believe, my friend, in our old songs, our old teachings, there’s one song that our people sing. And it says, ‘My friend, don’t be foolish. The only thing that lives forever is the earth.’”

“We can fight over land, we can fight over dirt, we can fight over all these things,” Helgeson continues. “But really all you ever have is what’s on your shoes. That’s the only dirt that you’ll ever own. The only ground that you’ll ever own is on your shoes. And that will fall off, too.”

With that, Helgeson shakes my hand and walks back to the powwow. 

He gave me a lot to think about. American Prairie’s mission to save some of the last grasslands in the world comes with casualties. But change always does, and whether it’s good or bad depends on your story and your relationship with this land. 

Later, I camp in the Missouri River Breaks. There’s a quote that keeps rolling around in my mind. It’s from the end of a book, Rewilding the West, by the Montana writer Richard Manning. He writes, “eventually, the Breaks will break us, teach us to live within their rules.”  

This a tough country and people will love it in their own way. That won’t change. 

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This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado, and the O'Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Montana. It was supported by the Pulitzer Center

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